Part 1: Serial Reading Guide for The House of Mirth, chs. 1.1 – 1.2.
1. These two chapters comprised the original first installment of the novel when it was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1905. Readers read them and then had to wait for the next issue for the story to continue–and that’s what we’ll do. The chapters establish not only the novel’s two central characters, but also the novel’s style and its main themes, which include matters of seeing/being seen, concealment, and pursuit.
2. Take a look at that very first sentence: “Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.” Right away, Wharton is signaling that Selden’s perceptions are going to be important to the this novel. We will want to keep our eye on him and his judgments as much as he keeps his eye on Lily.
3. The second paragraph reinforces how important Selden’s point of view will be. He is an obsessive observer. Wharton lets the narrator reveal Selden’s thoughts, a technique that offers us both exposition (background details to help contextualize the plot) and a sense of what Selden is like, psychologically and culturally. In fact, while chapter one tells us about Lily (via Selden’s thoughts), it also shows us something about Selden, by letting us share the experience of his character. And there’s more—When chapter two begins, we’ll see Wharton switch heads—the narrator shows us what Lily is thinking and feeling, in carefully controlled ways.
4. Notice that Selden and Lily do not always say what they are thinking. This may turn out to be both a matter of the novel’s style—the narrator will often reveal a character’s unspoken feelings—and an issue of plot and character—will the characters trip themselves up by not expressing themselves? Will they succeed by being discreet?
5. Note that chapter one begins and ends with specific references to “rescue.” This may develop into a motif (a repeated image or reference) that indicates a central concept the novel explores.
6. As mentioned above, chapter two opens with Lily’s thoughts. Note that the words of the second paragraph come from a third-person narrator, but they express Lily’s own thoughts, feelings, and even some of her vocabulary (“that stupid story about her dress-maker”).
7. For the sake of scale, consider that $300 for Lily would be about $8,500 today (2017). Apartments could be rented in 1905 for $35-$50 a month.
8. As chapter two ends, consider what Wharton has laid out for us. Add your own thoughts to the following categories (or dimensions) of narrative:
Plot-wise, it looks like Selden and Lily may become romantically linked, even though their light flirting is currently checked because of their interest in being “friends.” We also know that Lily lives at the mercy of some very strict conventions, with “marriage as a vocation,” and with Selden loosely associated with rescue. Then there’s something about somebody named Jefferson Gryce and his valuable books . . .
Style-wise, we’ve learned that Wharton likes to reveal characters’ unspoken thoughts and feelings. Her third-person narrative voice brings us very close to (some) characters’ perceptions and even language.
Theme-wise, it looks like the novel wants to explore issues of people trying to “read” other people, the concealing of true feelings and the wearing of masks to get by, and the challenges of social roles for women.
9. As you continue to read, be sure to annotate any passages, sentences, and even single words that seem particularly interesting, striking, or ominous; you’ll most likely discover that details you notice will be taken up and developed throughout the novel.